Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pac 12 | What we learned from Washington’s win against UCLA

#5 Washington 3, #4 UCLA 2 (22-25, 30-28, 19-25, 28-26, 16-14)
next: #3 USC @ #5 Washington | Friday, September 28 | 6pm [note early start time]

Jim McLaughlin exchanged a mid-court post-match handshake with UCLA coach Mike Sealy, then strode toward the locker room tunnel.

But as the Washington head coach passed the student section, the already- raucous cheers grew louder. McLaughlin turned and pumped his fists. When students howled with appreciation, McLaughlin’s grin stretched wider, and he blew the cheering section a kiss.

Washington  coach Jim McLaughlin salutes the crowd
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Jack Hamann
“This is a big game,” he said moments later. “These are the games that I came to Washington for. And these are the games that I recruited kids for. So, yeah, I just love this stuff.”

Volleyblog Seattle video:
·         match point
·         Jim McLaughlin press conference highlights

Make no mistake, though: McLaughlin knew darned well that this match could have gone either way.

Washington trailed UCLA in all five sets—the first time the undefeated Huskies (12-0) have had a match go past four sets all season. The fact that the Huskies came back to win three of the five is mostly good news, but it reveals a fair amount concern for McLaughlin.

“The Bruins are a good team,” McLaughlin said outside his winning locker room.  “But every kid in that room knows we can play better.”

Washington's Krista Vansant (16) and Kelcey Dunaway (2)
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Sophomore outside hitter Krista Vansant tallied a career-best 31 kills [plus 5 errors on 58 attempts (.448)]. Yet McLaughlin was cautious in his praise.

“You know, the first thing I told her—and she knows me—you gotta be excellent in everything you do. And you can pat yourself on the back all night, but she didn’t pass well. She doesn’t have to carry as much of a load if she passes well.”

The Huskies place top priority on serving and passing, but the Bruins knew that. UCLA’s servers—and especially middle blocker Mariana Aquino—tormented Washington all night.

“I think we lose focus,” said McLaughlin. “And I think we don’t see contact. You know, a good hitter in baseball can see the pitcher release the ball. There’s no secrets there. And, so, we gotta see the pitcher release the ball. How hard is she hitting it? Is it coming in my direction? Can I hit a home run? It’s no different. And, you know, if it’s a bad pitch, then let it go.”

But if the Huskies’ below-standards serve-and-pass kept the set scores close, McLaughlin says it was something else that earned them a win over the defending National Champs.

“There was more heart than I’ve seen in four, five, six years. And a little bit more courage, a little bit more personal pride in the individual battles that they’re in.”

So what did we learn?

The Great Ones Want the Ball

With the fifth set tied at 13, UCLA’s Rachel Kidder rotated to the back row. Her service error was another glitch in the Bruin star hitter’s sub-par performance (19 kills, 9 errors, 51 attempts, .196.) But, most important, it rotated Vansant to the front.

The Bruins handled Cassie Strickland’s booming serve, and Tabi Love planted her 25th kill. That brought UCLA libero Bojana Todorovic to the service line.

“At first I was thinking, ‘C’mon, get this pass,’” Vansant remembered, “‘cause that’s the first part of everything.”
Washington Huskies celebrate set-winning ace by Gabbi Parker (11)
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Her pass was spot on, and her kill brought the long contest to match point. She wanted to avoid a repeat of set two, however, when the Bruins fought off four set points en route to a 30-28 Washington win.

“I knew that they were up for tip, and I knew that their libero was staying sharper on defense. So, I knew I had the corner open. So, the first shot, I hit down the line, and I got blocked, high block.

“I was just, like, ‘set me the ball!’ I was, ‘C’mon, Krista, C’mon Krista!’ In my head, just ‘Hit your shot! Hit your shot!’

Freshman setter Katy Beals knew the rule: with the game on the line, set your best hitter. Vansant transitioned to her approach.

“I saw that the block was a little bit inside, so I thought to go angle, I’m gonna try a corner here. And then it ended up working.

“It felt really good to get the last kill.”

“She’s a stud,” said McLaughlin. “But being in the right place at the right time, and staying focused on the things that tell you what to do, the great ones do that. And she wasn’t always there. She was in bad spots.

“Until the end. She’s got the heart of a lion, but she’s not a smart lion yet.”

Going To Someone Other Than the Go-To Hitter

For the second match in a row, McLaughlin had freshman Strickland and junior Gabbi Parker split time at the second outside hitter position. Parker hit just .176 (5 kills, 2 errors on 17 swings), but Strickland’s numbers were even worse: 3 kills, 4 errors, 18 attempts (-.056).

“She hit like dog meat,” McLaughlin said. “And she knows that. But she passed and she served and she brought energy. And she did stuff that you got to do.”

As usual, Strickland brought a booming, fearless jump serve, earning 2 key aces but 4 service errors.

Washington's Jenna Orlandini (4) and Gabbi Parker (11)
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
At the end of the second set, however, it was Parker who came up big. She entered when UCLA had set point at 25-26. Three points later, Parker’s huge kill gave the Huskies’ a set point of their own, at 28-27.

At 29-28, Parker got the chance to serve. She tossed the same sky ball that both she and Strickland use for their jump serves. But with the Bruins on their heels, Parker launched a perfectly-disguised changeup, dropping the ball just behind the three-meter line for an ace and set point.

But if Parker and Strickland weren’t getting kills, Washington’s passing was good enough to allow setters Beals and Jenni Nogueras to find Amanda Gil in the middle (6 kills, 1 error on 14 attacks, .357), and Beals to find Kylin Muñoz on the right (8 kills, 3 errors on 22 swings, .227)

The best connection, though, was Nogueras and her right side partner, Kaleigh Nelson (14 kills, 5 errors, 33 attempts, .273) Steady passing allowed Nogueras to seek out Nelson time and again, and Nelson hit with power and no small amount of fearlessness. In the decisive fifth set, Nelson had two big kills and kept UCLA’s blockers from overcommitting to Vansant.

“The hitting battle, we won that,” said McLaughlin. “And we won the blocking battle. And we were pretty good in transition at the end. So, I’m fired up.”

Defense Makes a Difference

The Huskies and Bruins entered the match as two of the top hitting teams in the nation. For the match, UW hit .292, just below their average. UCLA, however, hit just .238.

The Bruins had 30 hitting errors, 14 of those on blocks. In a surprise, McLaughlin started senior Kelcey Dunaway at second middle instead of freshman Lianna Sybeldon. It paid off.

“The Bruins don’t set a lot of quick,” said McLaughlin, “and they go outside, where Kelcey’s very good.

“We just played our stronger hand. We got a lot of kids this year. So, we can do some matchup stuff.”

Credit, too, to Jenna Orlandini, often overlooked in discussions about the conference liberos. She made several momentum-changing digs, and had a better overall match than her Bruin counterpart, Todorovic.

“We’re maturing, McLaughlin says. “The body of work is getting stronger. It’s moving in the right direction. But, doggone it, in coaching, you tend to remember what you didn’t do well, and you want to fix stuff. There’s plenty on my list of things we gotta get going here. I’m going to work towards perfection, knowing we won’t get there. But, doggone it, we’re gonna try to get there.”

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin salutes crowd
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Jack Hamann

  • Friday’s match [note early 6pm start time] hosting #3 USC is a UW “Blackout” contest, when fans are encouraged to dress in black. The team is offering discounts to those who bring ticket stubs from the UW/Stanford football game.
“You don’t do Blackout for lame teams, you know?” says McLaughlin. “You do Blackout for the big teams. The Irish wear the green, and they have to get it cleared. Well, we’re doing a Blackout this weekend. And we get to play these top teams. This is a big game.”
  • Very few teams have independent blogs, but one of the very best covers #1 Penn State. This week, DigNittanyVolleyball has a nice feature (for Pac-12 fans) asking: Who’s Really Number One?

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann


  1. Nice write-up as usual, Jack, but that third picture is Orlandini, not Nogueras.

    Thanks for continuing to analyze these matches. I appreciate your work very much.

    1. Fourth.


    2. Yikes ... Jenna/Jenni, thanks for catching the goof.

      Of course, there's always Kylin/Katy/Kaleigh/Kelcey/Cassie/Kim/Krista ... talk about trying to be careful ...

  2. No problem. That was a very minor mistake.

    I didn't see the video earlier; THANK YOU for posting it! I didn't get to see the game and the thrill of that final moment.... incredible!

    There was an earlier rally a point or two before that final point which was described as indescribable in the Live Chat. Can you please post that? Or is the full match available somewhere? It really sounded like one for the ages, especially if the Dawgs grow from it.

    Thanks again.

    1. Because matches are broadcast by Pac-12 Network, we have very limited ability to post video taken during matches.

      That said, I have a call into the Network to figure out how viewers can more easily find the match replay schedule. I'll pass along their reply when I hear back ...


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